Afghanistan presidential candidate: Any potential leader has to be approved by West

Afghanistan – a black hole, swallowing people and the resources of anyone brave enough to step in. Devastated by the years of battles, first with the Soviets and then with the Americans, the land is still engulfed in strife. Will Afghanistan ever see peace? Is there hope for the Afghan nation? Today we talk to Fawzia Koofi, a female Afghan politician, running for President in 2014 elections.


Sophie Shevardnadze: Our guest today, Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan politician, running for president in 2014. Fawzia, it’s so great to have you on our show today. First of all, let me just say that I admire your courage to do what you are doing in Afghanistan. I am aware that the situation with the women’s rights in Afghanistan is far from being perfect, it’s almost a curse to be born a woman there. But still you seem to be optimistic about changes to the lives of Afghan women. Walk us through – how exactly have things changed for women in your country since 2001?

Fawzia Koofi: It’s a pleasure for me to be on your show, thank you so much for what you have said. Well, I think for the women’s life, I can see it as a colorful picture: like there are some green zones, which talk about progress women have had both in terms of politics, social life compared to the Taliban government, after the Taliban regime which was actually a nightmare for women in Afghanistan. I was living under that situation myself, as a woman in Kabul. I know what it means to be a woman under the Taliban – comparing to that time, to that regime I think a lot has changed, especially women’s participation in politics. Right now in the Parliament of Afghanistan we have 69 women parliamentarians out of 200 Parliamentarians. Women can go to school, they go to universities, and they can participate in social affairs, economic affairs, so that’s like the green color part of woman’s life. There is the black side, also, which is the violence against women, kind of structured discrimination that women are suffering…

SS:We’ll talk about the withdrawal process in just a little bit. I want to focus first about your candidacy as president. You are, first of all, the country’s first female deputy speaker of Parliament, and you are running for the presidency in 2014. And, although some things may be different, like you’ve said, it would take a total transformation within Afghan society to elect a female president – I mean, even in countries with long-running democracies it’s rare. So, realistically, how do you rate your chances?

FK: I understand it’s a very difficult situation, especially for a woman to be in the top leadership position. It has been possible in other neighboring countries of Afghanistan to have women as their leaders. I understand that the country is hugely military – still weapons and guns are in power more than just people’s voice, but in the meantime, we have to start it somewhere. I believe that we are putting the cornerstones for future. So, no matter what the election results would be, the important thing is that we put the right cornerstone for the future.

SS:Ok, obviously so many questions arise, because you are the symbol in the midst of this. A black country that everyone is afraid of…And all of a sudden you have this beautiful woman running for the presidency and obviously, everyone is asking who are your main supporters politically, does it come mainly from inside or outside?

FK: I believe it’s the inside of the country, because that’s what I need mostly in the support, I need the vote of people. I think my supporters are not limited to one particular province, or one particular ethnic society or tribal society, although I come from the north and certainly in politics every politician has their own constituents, and I hope that my basic constituents will support me more, but I trust, as I said before, this transformed part of Afghan society, which includes women, young generations. Elderly people as well will support me – I was lucky enough to raise my voice and make it be heard by many people around the world who believe that Afghanistan needs a change of leadership and they support me also. They believe that Afghanistan cannot continue to be ruled by the same people who had been involved in the destruction of the country, now they would like to run and be part of democracy process…You know, people who believe in democracy should actually be part of the process. The good thing about democracy is that it gives a chance for everybody to run, for everybody to participate in politics but if you bring people who don’t believe in democracy in power, in the position – certainly, it doesn’t work, democracy will not survive. So, there are people inside Afghanistan who believe in better future for Afghanistan, a future where we don’t have to just rely on the foreign aid, rely on the foreign support, but be a country where we stand on our feet. There are many people in Afghanistan that will still believe in that vision.

SS:But, when you say “main constituency” of your electorate – is it mainly women, or do you think men will also vote for you?

FK: I actually have a good experience of the past two elections where not only women supported me – certainly, I’ve got a lot of votes from any female polling station, but men also voted for me, and I hope that I will get the support of both, while I trust there will be more votes and support from women, but in the meantime I trust that I will have the support of male voters as well, because the focus of my programs is not just only on women, it’s for the country.

SS:You know, the present government, under President Karzai has been praised by many, but also criticized for being completely controlled by Americans, not being independent enough. Now, you yourself, you have great friends in the West, you are friends with a lot of powerful people – aren’t you worried that within your country your western links could work against you?

FK: It’s a very difficult question…I actually rely on my people, I just think that my main supporters are my people, any believe that any politician who doesn’t believe in his or her people, who doesn’t rely on his or her people will not be successful. I know that we need to have a longer term strategic partnership with our friends, both our historical friends but also our strategic friends. In the meantime I know that if I don’t have the support of my people, I will not politically survive, and I know that if President Karzai doesn’t have the support of his people, he will not survive. He initially was regarded as president that is very much pro-western and he received a lot of support by western countries, in particular the US, but unfortunately we see a shift of politics in his policy. Recently, he kind of changed when we had a Loya Jirga, the grand council, that voted for the approval for the security agreement with the US, but he doesn’t still sign it, so we have seen a slight shift of policy from him when it comes to his politics towards western world, but I guess we will have to keep the balance of politics towards regional countries, in the meantime we can continue to keep good friendship with our strategic partners that have almost saved Afghanistan from the hands of extremism of Taliban.

SS:Let me rephrase the question – only with the support of your people, without the support of your strategic partners or the “West” as you call them – could you win the elections? Only with the support of your people?

FK: I think any candidate that would like to win should have support of the people and also should have the approval or so to say, or, you know, final approval of the international community, but we would like the election to be very much fair and fine in the hands of Afghans. We really want the Afghans to decide about their future, because that’s the basis for democracy.

SS: It brings me to another huge topic, which is the Taliban. When I think about it, I feel like it’s inconceivable that the Taliban would actually let a woman to run the country. They tried to kill you twice, there was an attempt on your life, and they will probably do it again because there’s no stopping them. Is it worth the risk?

FK: It’s not only, as you rightly mentioned, it’s not only once or twice when the Taliban actually tried to kill me – it’s a continued treat, even just couple of days ago I was warned that I need to be careful because there might be kind of organized attempt. I think that…I have grown up during a very critical time of Afghanistan history, during basically the conflicts, the 35 years of conflicts. I have had a choice, always, either to stay in Afghanistan or to experience a different experience, but for me, the best choices have always been to at least contribute to the change in my country. I know sometimes it becomes so difficult and I think twice or three times before I make a decision, especially when it’s a big decision about future of politics in my country and my role in that, in big elections, et cetera. I think twice or three times because I know that the risk is great, especially that I have two daughters in my own family, I have a responsibility towards my daughters as well. But, I guess, if you balance my threats and security challenges comparing to what I want to achieve and what I want to do. My visions for this country are much heavier and greater than the security challenges, so I kind of ignore the challenges and prefer to continue what I do.

SS: Let me ask you this – if you are elected president, would you consider sitting down at the negotiating table with the Taliban?

FK: Its a very interesting topic for discussion, but in the meantime very tricky. As I see it, I have lived all my life in Kabul, including the Taliban time, and I have experienced a brutal regime as a woman, of course. When I, as a politician, have to be flexible to bring peace and security to my country, I will certainly pursue any discussions and negotiations with any group that will result peace in my country, including the Taliban. In the meantime, I know that the government of Afghanistan has been following the so-called peace process for the past 3-4 years and the result that they’ve got from this peace process was more assassinations, more killings of our leaders, more violence and suicide bombings and less peace results, so I think that the current peace process in Afghanistan needs to be revised and I think we have to bring more regional powers onboard, and especially those countries that have been actually been supporting terrorism and extremism – they have been training them, they have been providing equipment, namely in this case Pakistan – we need to talk to them because the current President also said “If Pakistan would like to establish and support peace process in Afghanistan, peace will come to Afghanistan”, so if our president and the current administration also believe that peace is in the hands of Pakistan, then I guess we should talk to Pakistan and involve Pakistan in a honest peace process, but I will certainly not talk to those people who will not change – I will not waste my time and instead I will just try to deliver good government, rule of law, poverty eradication, try to establish a government which is accountable, and I think the Taliban will automatically be marginalized. I think it’s a waste of time and a waste of resources to continue pursuing a process where the results are zero, like the current process of peace, which the current administration undertakes.

SS:There is a high probability of Taliban resurgence after the US troops withdraw in 2014, in its past form, not reformed Taliban. Do you and Afghan citizens actually want the Americans to stay, because it’s a very controversial topic outside of Afghanistan?

FK: Well you know that a big council, which is called Loya Jirga in Afghanistan, it’s a very traditional means of decision about national issues, decided that the government of Afghanistan should go ahead and have the security agreement with US. Partly, you know that our history is full of fight of freedom – these are values that each and every Afghan will fight, till last drop of their blood, but in the meantime because of the wrong neighborhood we are located, especially the two neighbors we are located with, both Pakistan and also somehow Iran – we don’t have good experience of their influence on Afghanistan. They have been reshaping their policies in a way that it’s more insecurity and promotes insurgency in Afghanistan, so therefore I think people in Afghanistan would like to continue to have partnership with the country which is in a way a superpower and have a backup of a strong country – that’s why these group of 3,000 elders that came from parts of Afghanistan yesterday, they have approved Afghan government to sign this agreement. So, I think the nation of Afghanistan would like to have…you know, if you compare now with 1996 or 1997 when Afghanistan was in the hands of people from Pakistan, even Arabs – I think there is no difference between current occupation and the occupation then. The Taliban, when they claimed that Afghanistan is an occupied, I think they don’t have a valid point and therefore I think many people in Afghanistan would like to continue to have the same situation not to reverse back.

SS: You’ve brought up the word “occupation”, because, yes, to many it does seem like even though it’s a partnership, and it’s a civil partnership, it does seem like a civil occupation so to say. Do you think that your country will ever be completely independent, in your lifetime, for example, without Americans looking after Afghanistan?

FK: Afghanistan is defined as an independent country, I mean it is a country that has its independency, but in the meantime I agree that there are foreign troops. According to the security agreement we will have troops for another 10 years – I hope that 10 years will be enough time for Afghan forces to stand on their feet and to be able to defend the country’s territory by themselves. Financially, you know that Afghanistan is located in a very important geographical location that connects central Asia to south Asia – right now this location is being used as our weakness, but I hope that the 10 years period of agreement with the US and their troops present, will give a chance for Afghanistan to change this weakness into strength in terms of the business and commerce between central and south Asia and Afghanistan to be used as a trade point for connecting money opportunities in these two regions. I hope that in 10 years time we will be able to have a country which stands for itself and doesn’t have to just rely on foreign aid.

SS: Can you imagine, for just one second, that in 2014 NATO and American troops withdraw – I’m just trying to get a clear picture of what shape your country is in right now. What would happen, would your government collapse right away? Or would it hold on?

FK: Well, there are two scenarios – there is one scenario which is the negative scenario, and that is that if foreign troops withdraw and Afghanistan is once again abandoned as it was in 1992 and 1996 when there was civil war and the Taliban fighting and regime came to power…The negative scenario would be that Taliban might come to power; because there are many groups in Afghanistan that will not like Taliban brutal regime, they will start fighting against Taliban, and so the civil war will begin once again. But there is also the positive scenario – the positive scenario is that we would be having an election in April 2014, we will have a kind of transition of power before the military exit or the military transition. This political transition will bring strong, committed, accountable government that is acceptable by people of Afghanistan and that government will pave the way for military transition and slowly this military transition will happen without collapsing the institutions of Afghanistan. I am very much hopeful that the second scenario would be possible.

SS:Just really quickly to sum it up – you know, a lot of people in America are actually growing tired of wars, American involvement in foreign countries. Has it ever crossed your mind that the US may have grown weary of Afghanistan, and it sees Afghanistan as a burden and regrets its involvement – it also greatly depends on who’s going to be president next because their foreign policy and involvement varies from president to president. Have you ever considered that they just at some point would not want to be in Afghanistan, period?

FK: Let me make it clear that the US was not in Afghanistan just to help people of Afghanistan, but they came to Afghanistan after 2001 when 11 September attack has happened. So they didn’t just come to Afghanistan to help Afghan people only – but they came to Afghanistan to make it a safe place where security threats will not kind of grow from this place to become a world threat to a foreign security. So Americans are not just here because of Afghans, but they are here because of a greater issue which is the world security and their own security – and I hope that this partnership will continue because both nations of Afghanistan and the US have been victims of terrorism, they experienced it in 2001 and the threat continues, we have experienced it before that. I hope it doesn’t depend on president but becomes part of course strategy for the US to continue to support Afghanistan. I know they have invested blood and treasure in Afghanistan, and we admire that. We also paid the high price for being a victim of terrorism and for paying wrong politics of different countries during the Cold War. Big amount of money was paid to different groups during the Cold War without looking how the money was spent and finally the Taliban groups would establish. As a result of that we were a victim nation because not only that we paid kind of human cost but also our education and all values were damaged and basically we had to restart at everything. I think it’s a relationship which is in the interest of both countries and the interest of both nations and I hope Americans will understand that more than the Afghans.

SS:Well have one minute left and I want to touch upon one of the difficult subjects and topics for Afghanistan, which is drug addiction, because proportionally right now Afghanistan has the largest population addicted to drugs. Do you have a plan how to deal with this?

FK: Well, as we are victims of regional terrorism, you know that we are also victims of regional mafia. I hope we will get stronger support from regional countries for the trafficking, support, you know, to get rid of the trafficking, and have a regional honest support on this. On the eradication... Why don’t we talk about Afghanistan fruits which are the best fruits in the world? Afghanistan karakul, which is the best kind of antique things in the world? I think we can promote those kinds of agricultural things and provide farmers with an alternative instead of just growing poppies.

SS:I hope that happens when you become president, but the question is how is it that the US and the current Afghan government allowed such mass drug production? Because I know that at some point the Taliban had dropped it to nothing – but now the drug output increased many times during the American presence, why? What’s going on?

FK: It’s a very complicated matter, but it’s very much linked to security – security started to get worse and insurgency was rising since 2009, I guess. The poppy cultivation started to get more and more, especially in the places where there is more insecurity, there is more poppy growth. I think there is a link with insecurity. My plan would be, if we have a strong government that is accountable and the team that is very honest and works hard both in terms of eradication, providing farmers with alternative which is reliable, and in terms of regional cooperation for trafficking – it’s, once again, it’s a war product in Afghanistan, traditionally people of Afghanistan have not been cultivating poppy, it’s a war product. When there is no fighting, I’m sure: people will go for a legal way of income.

SS: Thank you so much for this wonderful interview, we wish you all the best, we wish you to become the president of Afghanistan, and we’ll be rooting for you from over here, so all the best to you and your country. That’s all we have today, I’m Sophie Shevardnadze, join us next time here on Sophie&Co.